The Internet Gets Less Scary

October 24, 2007 | 2 min read

After years of fearmongering and borderline hysteria, the anti-Internet rhetoric of the publishing companies is softening considerably, according to Reuters. In 2005, we saw publishers banding together to go up against Google Books (then called Google Print). Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, epitomized the prevailing thought at the time: “If Google can make…copies, then anyone can. Anybody could go into a library and start making digital copies of anything.” A few months later, Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, attempted to inspire a boycott against Google. “Authors are being ripped off however you look at it,” he declared.

But, of course, none of this ever came to pass. As I said at the time:

Google or not, the technology currently exists for anyone to start digitizing the books in the library or in their own homes, but I don’t see this happening, and it’s not because people are afraid of lawsuits from publishers, it’s because people aren’t that interested in digitized copies of books.

These same thoughts are now being echoed by Penguin’s top executive John Makinson: “There is a lot going on in the music publishing industry that is not going on in the book industry. Consumers don’t want albums they want tracks and in publishing people want books not chapters” – a perfectly sensible assessment that should have been made a long time ago.

I think, though, that publishers are fully awakening to the fact that opportunities on the Internet to raise awareness about their books far outweigh the threats. Even used books, which have a huge market on the Internet, are not eating into profits as feared.

From a publicity and marketing standpoint, publishers are clearly on board with the Internet. Regardless of where the disappearance of newspaper book review sections registers on your fear meter, publishers are hedging their bets and spreading their efforts well beyond print, with creative author websites, outreach to online communities of readers, and a proliferation of all sorts of online writing contests and publisher blogs. Some publishers have learned to play nice with Google, while others have made legitimate efforts to digitize their books on their own. As a sign of how far we’ve come, two years ago making the entire Booker Prize shortlist available online was unthinkable. But publishers have come to the perfectly sensible realization that “if readers like a novel tasted on the internet, they may just be inspired to buy the actual book.”

It may be too soon to close the book on this saga, but I think it’s safe to say that reason has triumphed. Publishers are finally realizing that, while the internet has forced great change upon their industry, the threats faced have been far less dire than those faced by the music and film industries. At the same time, in a world where cultural content has been elbowed out of newspapers and magazines, the Internet offers easier access to the many people who do care about books but are underserved by traditional media. With fear behind them, publishers are stepping out bravely into a new world.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

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